No ordinary surprise awaited the audience assembled at the Bourgogne when Racine's Andromaque made its appearance. In addition to being a tragedy of the order so long desired in vain, it was to them what the Cid had been to their progenitors in the days of Richelieu, the sudden revelation of a genius previously unsuspected. In framing his plot, Racine deviated very widely from the legend of the captivity of Hector's widow and son at the palace of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. Three distinct and conflicting interests are brought into play. Andromache is loved by Pyrrhus, Pyrrhus by Hermione, and Hermione by Orestes. It is only by becoming the wife of her tyrant that Andromache can save her son from being delivered up to the vindictive Greeks.; a deep-seated reverence for the memory of Hector struggles with the impulses of maternal affection, and at length, with a determination not to survive the marriage ceremony, she consents to the sacrifice required at her hands. Betrothed to Pyrrhus, whom she has left Greece to wed, Hermione, stung to madness by her humiliation, causes him to be assassinated on the altar steps just after the safety of Astyanax is assured, the chosen instrument of her vengeance being Orestes. But a fierce revulsion of feelings sweeps through her mind as the latter tells her of the crime she has urged him to perpetrate. Far from giving him the expected reward of his devotion, she assails him with bitter invective, falls into an agony of remorse and destroys herself on the bier of her victim. Stunned by the discovery that he has lost his honor to no purpose, Orestes is hurried by Pylades and other friends beyond reach of the punishment with which he is threatened. In elaborating this impressive story, so different from the one related in the Greek play, Racine manifested the power required to do it justice. Blemishes in the work there unquestionably were; yet, viewed as a whole, it left no doubt that, in the field opened to him by Quinault and Molière, he would reign supreme unless another Euripides should arise.
In the third act Andromache pleads with Hermione for the life of her son; but Hermione answers her scornfully:
I understand your grief; but my father has spoken, and it is my stern duty to be silent. It is he who moves Pyrrhus to anger; but who can plead with Pyrrhus like yourself? Your eyes have long swayed him. Gain him to your side, and I will lend my voice.
As Hermione sweeps away, Pyrrhus and his counsellor Phoenix enter, and the unhappy mother hears the counsellor say:
PHOENIX: Let us give up Hector's son to the Greeks.
ANDROMACHE: (Throwing herself at Pyrrhus' feet.) Ah, prince, pause! What will you do? If you give up the boy, give them his mother also. You who have sworn so much love for me, O Heaven, can I not touch your pity? Am I condemned without hope?
PYRRHUS: Phoenix will tell you; my word is pledged.
ANDROMACHE: You who would have braved for me so many perils!
PYRRHUS: I was blind once; my eyes are opened now. I might then have granted you grace, but you did not even ask it. 'Tis now too late.
ANDROMACHE: Ah, prince! You heard the sighs which feared refusal. Forgive the fallen greatness this remnant of pride that fears to show itself importunate. You know my wishes; and but for you Andromache would never have clasped the knees of a master . . . . See, then, the condition to which I am fallen. I have seen my father dead, and our walls thrown down; I have seen all my kindred perish. I have seen my husband dragged through the dust; his son reserved with me for chains. But what cannot a son do? I breathed, I hoped. I believed that our prison might become a refuge. Pardon, dear Hector, my credulity. I could not suspect thy enemy of a crime. In spite of myself, I thought him magnanimous.
Pyrrhus feels his heart melting, and sends away Phoenix so that he may speak more freely; and he conjures Andromache to think well of what she is about to do. She may, if she will, still save her son, but this is the last opportunity that will be given to her. As he goes on, his appeal to her becomes impassioned. "For the last time, save him, save yourself," he cries. "I know what oaths I must break for you, . . . but this offer is not to be disdained. You must reign or you must perish. I die if I lose you, but I die if I wait. Think of it." Thus Pyrrhus leaves her to make her choice.
The unhappy Andromache remains on the stage with Cephisa, her waiting-woman. Cephisa counsels her to accept Pyrrhus' offer, but she cannot resolve to marry her tyrant.
ANDROMACHE: Can I forget Hector unburied, dragged in dishonor round our walls? Can I forget his father thrown down at my feet, covering the altar with blood? Think, think, Cephisa, of that cruel night. Imagine Pyrrhus with fierce eyes entering by the light of the burning palace, making his way over my dead brethren!
CEPHISA: Enough. Let us then see your son die. All they want is that you---- You tremble, lady!
ANDROMACHE: Ah, with what memories you overwhelm my soul! What, Cephisa! Must I see the death of my son, of my only joy, the image of Hector? Alas, I remember well the day when his brave heart led him forth to seek Achilles or death! He asked for his son and took him in his arms. "Dear wife," he said, drying my tears, "I know not what fate is reserved for me; I leave thee my son as a pledge of my love; if he loves me, let him find me in thee."
The fourth act opens with Andromache. She has made her choice. She will marry Pyrrhus, and thus engage him to protect her boy; and when she has left him at the altar, she will destroy herself. She takes Cephisa into her confidence, and instructs her how to teach her infant after she is gone.
ANDROMACHE: Make my son know the heroes of his race. As much as you may, lead him in their steps. Tell him by what great deeds they have been distinguished, what they did rather than what they were. Speak to him daily of the virtues of his father, and sometimes also tell him of his mother. But let him not think, Cephisa, of avenging us. We leave him a master whom he must consider. Let him have of his ancestors a sober recollection. He is of the blood of Hector, he is all that remains of him; and for that remnant I myself in one day have sacrificed blood and life, my hatred and my love.
Out attention is now recalled to Hermione, who receives with a terrible calm of passion which her attendant cannot understand, the news of this renewed alteration in Pyrrhus. She will say nothing to Cleone, but sends for Orestes, whom she interrupts in his eager delight at the summons.
HERMIONE: Prince, I would know if you love me?
ORESTES: If I love you? O Heaven! My oaths, my perjuries, my flight, my return to you, my respect, my reproaches, my despair, my eyes drowned in tears--what witnesses will you believe if you believe not these?
HERMIONE: Avenge me; I believe everything.
ORESTES: Be it so. Let us see once more Greece on flame. Let us take, you the place of Helen, I of Agamemnon, making famous my arm and your name. Awake once more in the land the miseries of Troy, and let us be famed like our fathers. Let us go. I am ready.
HERMIONE: No, prince, remain. I would not carry such insults so far. What! to crown the insolence of my enemies, shall I await elsewhere a tardy revenge? Shall I trust to the fate of battles which perhaps in the end may not avenge me? I will have all Epirus weep my departure. But if you avenge me, it must be in an hour. Your delays are to me as refusals. Hasten to the temple. There you must sacrifice--
ORESTES: Pyrrhus, lady?
HERMIONE: Ah! your hate wavers. Fly, and fear not that I will call you back.
Orestes is glad of an opportunity to avenge himself on Pyrrhus, but would prefer to take his vengeance openly. "Let us be his enemies, not his assassins," he says. He fears to sully his own name and the fair name of Greece by assassinating the king of Epirus. But Hermione is very imperative that Pyrrhus should die at once. She feels that though he has cruelly wronged her, her old passion for him may return unless he is quickly punished. Unless he dies today she may forgive him, and love him again tomorrow. Orestes consents at last with reluctance and dread of the revolution that must follow, but still asks for delay. He will do it at night, not now. But Hermione is not to be put off.
HERMIONE: Today he weds Andromache. Already in the temple the throne is raised, and my shame complete. Come back covered with the blood of the traitor. Go! And thus make sure of my heart.
ORESTES: But, lady, think--
HERMIONE: Oh, it is too much, prince! Go vaunt your constancy to other ears than mine, and leave me to my revenge. I will go alone into the temple when the marriage rites are prepared, and where you dare not go to win me. There I shall find means to approach my enemy. I will pierce the heart which I could not touch; and my bloody hands, turned on myself, will unite us in spite of him. Thankless as he is, it will be sweeter to die with him than live with you.
ORESTES: No; I will take this fatal pleasure from you, lady. He shall die only by the hand or Orestes. Your enemies shall be sacrificed by me, and you shall then reward my care, if it so pleases you.
HERMIONE: Go! leave me the guidance of your fate, and let your ships be ready for our flight.
In the last act Orestes announces the death of Pyrrhus, but not by his hand:
ORESTES: Lady, it is done! You are obeyed. Pyrrhus at the altar-steps has breathed forth his false life.
HERMIONE: He is dead!
Orestes then tells her the story. He went into the temple, and there saw Pyrrhus standing at the altar with Andromache at his side. Pyrrhus recognized him, but only to show greater boldness. The presence of the Greeks, whose ambassador he had defied, made his marriage more splendid. He took his diadem and placed it on the head of Andromache. "I give you," he said, "my faith and my crown. Andromache, reign over Epirus and me. I swear to your son a father's care. I call the gods to witness it, I swear it to his mother. His enemies shall be my enemies, and I acknowledge him as king of the Trojans." To these words the Greeks answered only with a cry of rage. They flung themselves upon Pyrrhus. Orestes saw him fall, and hurried forth to save the princess and convey her to her ships.
Hermione's hate for Pyrrhus now turns to wrath and scorn for Orestes.
HERMIONE: What have they done?
ORESTES: Pardon their impatience. They have, I know, forestalled your revenge. You would that my hand had struck the first blow, that he should have known that he died for your cause. But it was my zeal that was their example; for you I led them to the temple. Yours is the honor of a deed which their arms have only executed. You alone inspired the blow--
HERMIONE: Silence, traitor! This vile deed is thine alone. Go vaunt your fury among the Greeks. Go! I disown it and you. Savage! what have you done? With what fury have you cut the thread of a beautiful life? Speak! Who made thee the arbiter of his fate? Why have you killed him?--by what right? What had he done to thee?
ORESTES: Gods above! What? Have not you yourself--you here, a moment since, ordained his death?
Hermione replies to Orestes' excalmation:
HERMIONE: Ah, who would believe an outraged lover? You should have read my spirit better. Saw you not through all my rage that my heart have the lie to my lips? Even if I said it, should you have consented? You should have made me repeat it a hundred times. You should have returned to consult me before giving the blow. You should have left to myself the care of my revenge. Adieu! you may depart. I remain in Epirus. I give up Greece, Sparta, my country, my family. It is enough for me, traitor, that they have produced a monster like you.
Orestes is left bewildered and overwhelmed by these invectives. He has made himself an assassin, a regicide, a sacrilegious murderer, to please her; and now she turns upon him. But he has little time to bewail himself; for Pylades and his retainers rush in to force him to flee.
Andromache is queen; the people are ready to obey her, and she has vowed revenge upon the foes of Pyrrhus. But Orestes, true to his love, will not forsake Hermione, until he is told that she is dead. On her way to the temple she met the bier of Pyrrhus, and, bidding the bearers halt, stooped over the body, then turned her head toward heaven and stabbed herself.
The play ends with a wild outburst of passion and despair from Orestes. He is the sport of the gods. In his anguish the day seems to darken round him, and he sees a vision of his rival and his love:
ORESTES: What? Pyrrhus! I meet thee once again! Pierced by so many blows, how hast thou escaped? Hold! here is my blow, which I have saved for thee. But what do I see? Hermione before my eyes clasps him in her arms. She snatches him from the threatened blow. Ye gods, what looks like she casts upon me! What demons, what serpents she brings after her!